Monday, June 29, 2009

Study Questions Cancer Drugs' Cost Effectiveness

By AVERY JOHNSON The widespread use of expensive cancer drugs to prolong patients' lives by just weeks or months was called into question by an article published Monday in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Crunching data from published studies, the authors found that treating a lung-cancer patient with Erbitux, a drug that costs $80,000 for an 18-week regimen, only prolongs survival by 1.2 months. Based on that estimate, extending the lives of the 550,000 Americans who die of cancer annually by one year would cost $440 billion, they extrapolated. How to control escalating spending on end-of-life care is one of the thorniest questions facing lawmakers working on the overhaul of the U.S. health-care system. Some countries, like the United Kingdom, agree to pay for expensive drugs only if they meet a certain threshold of efficacy, but no such rationing exists in the U.S. In addition to Erbitux, which is co-marketed by Eli Lilly & Co. and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., the authors questioned the cost-benefit calculus for other big sellers such as Roche Holding AG's Avastin and Nexavar, which is co-marketed by Bayer AG and Onyx Pharmaceuticals, citing similarly limited survival data. The latter two drugs cost more than $34,000 for a standard course of treatment. The authors, Tito Fojo, an oncologist with the National Cancer Institute, and Christine Grady, a bioethicist at the National Institutes of Health, called for changes in the testing and practice of medicine, noting that more than 90% of cancer medicines approved in the last four years in the U.S. cost more than $20,000 for a 12-week course. Drug makers said the article exaggerated the overall costs of their treatments because few patients are on them for extended periods of time. They added that many patients qualify for financial assistance and that the high list prices of the drugs reflect the high cost of scientific innovation. Brian Henry, a spokesman for Bristol-Myers, says that the real-world price that patients pay for Erbitux is closer to $10,000 a month; the $80,000 figure that the article uses reflects a benchmark price known as average wholesale price that isn't typically paid by anyone. "The total cost of Erbitux therapy varies depending on the course of treatment for an individual patient. The course of treatment is determined by the type of cancer, stage of disease, line of therapy, dosing schedule and duration of treatment based on clinical data," says Mr. Henry, who adds that Erbitux isn't approved to treat lung cancer. Nonetheless, the authors called for not testing drugs with marginal benefits unless they can be sold for under $20,000. They also urged oncologists to cease the widespread practice of prescribing medicines outside of their officially approved indications and to avoid trying new drugs with limited upside on patients with advanced cancer. "Many Americans would not regard a 1.2-month survival advantage as 'significant' progress," the authors wrote. "But would an individual patient disagree? Although we lack the answer to that question, we would suggest that the death of a mother of four at age 37 years would be no less painful were it to occur at age 37 years and 1 month." While some policy experts consider the rationing of health care resources inevitable in the quest to control medical spending, many Americans have long resisted putting the collective fiscal good over their individual health. The debate is complicated by the fact that, in some cases, the drugs work very well. "A drug like Erbitux is not very impressive when you look at the statistics, but for some it's just remarkable," says Robert Erwin, who heads the cancer advocacy group Marti Nelson Cancer Foundation. "How much does it cost for the person to have the opportunity to benefit, whether they get the benefit or not?" Richard Heimler, 49, is among the patients who has benefited from high-cost treatments. He was diagnosed with lung cancer five years ago. In January, he added Avastin to a regimen of other expensive drugs. He credits it with shrinking his tumors within two months of starting treatment. "My strategy has been to stay alive until the next drug comes out, and then stay alive long enough for the next drug after that," says Mr. Heimler, who lives in New York and was head of development for a nonprofit before retiring two years ago. "If my family and I can afford a drug, we'll try it. It's hard to put a value on a life." But for Roger Megerth, 73, prolonged treatment with Nexavar wasn't worth it. He started taking Nexavar last June after being diagnosed with kidney cancer, but the side effects -- indigestion, bleeding in the mouth and intestinal problems -- were mounting. So were the bills. The retired teacher says his school district switched prescription-drug plans and his co-pay for a bottle of 30 pills jumped from $20 to $988.18. He put one month's supply on his credit card and decided to forgo further treatment after that. "I would've borrowed money and run out my visa," but the side effects weren't worth it, says Mr. Megerth of Billings, Mont. He says his disease is under control for now, but he's in considerable pain and needs a walker to move around comfortably. A spokeswoman for Onyx says that 75% of patients on Nexavar spend $50 or less out of pocket for the drug and that patient assistance programs are available to cover the remainder of its costs. Write to Avery Johnson at

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